There’s something about open play that seems to indicate more than a style of play, but a superiority in soccer.
Yes, set pieces matter. A beautiful free kick is a work of art. And thumping home headers off corners or keeping that service from finding a route into the goal can change a season, to be sure.
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But as we decide who has the best chance to make the Premier League’s top four or who could slip into the bottom three, it may make sense to educate our predictions through who has the best of play when the ball is zipping around the pitch.
And it makes sense that the PL’s best teams are, for the most part, the ones who thrive in open play, whether actual goals scored and conceded, or expected ones.
Why open play as a measuring tool?
Take the PL table as we know it, where Man City is running away with the league at No. 1 and West Brom and Sheffield United are in a race to get relegated first.
What changes when we shift the goal differential column by open play goal differential, open play xG differential, and dead ball/set piece goal differential (combining goals scored off direct and indirect free kicks as well as corner kicks)?
Well let’s start with open play. Man City, Man United, and Leicester City are still in the top four, while very few teams are more than three or four places off their actual table setting. Leeds rises from 11th to sixth, Brighton goes from 16th to 10th, and West Ham dips from fifth to 11th. That’s straight-up eye test stuff, too.
Also, while Chelsea sinks from fourth to seventh, their differential gap shows them clearly above the midtable pack of Arsenal, Villa, Brighton, and West Ham.
Take that next level to xG differential in open play. The table, now really a measurement of the most good chances produced versus conceded, is looking awfully familiar in the top five: Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Leicester City.
That’s almost an exact replica of the 2019-20 table! Brighton makes a huge jump and both Liverpool’s rise and Everton’s fall notable, but all-in-all it’s an even less volatile mix than actual goals:goals conceded.
Now how about dead ball stuff? The table reads West Ham, Southampton, Man City, and Villa in the top four, with Burnley sneaking into Europe just ahead of Fulham. Leicester is bottom three with Brighton while Liverpool and Man United are 13th and 14th.
Why is that notable? Well, think about it: I’d posit there’s a lot more luck in scoring a goal in congested 18s than on well-worked open play soccer. Throw in penalty goals and those conceded and the table barely changes. West Ham still first, but Chelsea kicks Villa out of the top four.
Leeds goes down. Deadballs are the opposite of why we praise Bielsa.
Man City’s superiority on full display in open play, but who’s next?
Pep Guardiola’s men lead the league in nearly every category of import, so it’s no surprise that City is first in everything.
City has eight more open play goals than anyone else (49) and has conceded seven fewer than the next best side. It barely changes when the view shifts to goals conceded, although Chelsea is nearly as good in defense. Only Everton has scored off more dead ball plays than City — not counting penalties — and only Burnley and Fulham have been as good at defending them.
If you want to believe in the open play route to the fullest, then there’s one, maybe two threats to the top four.
Manchester United, Leicester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool are the next best at producing xG in open play, with the first two teams over-delivering on what they’ve produced and the latter two not hitting the mark.
Spurs are a tough one to measure, having scored 22 more goals than they’ve allowed in open play while their xG numbers drop to +4.
Leeds is nowhere near the top four discussion but Marcelo BIelsa’s men are killers in open play, with 36 goals scored and 25 allowed, but the concession numbers are misleading. xG:xA is just +3.
Who’s dominating other areas?
You just know there had to be some explanation for West Ham’s success after seeing their open play numbers are not top end material in actual goals or xG.
With 28:27 goals for v goals conceded and 36:30 in xG v expected goals conceded, the Irons have done their damage on set pieces. And it’s not just luck. West Ham has 16 goals scored off corners and set piece service versus only six conceded, and the xG numbers are still good at about 11:4.
No one else in the league is within three goals of West Ham’s plus-10 on deadballs. Southampton’s second-best plus-7 is nice, but it’s -21 in open play is only better than unlucky Sheffield United (-27) and a terrible West Brom (-32).
What about the muddled middle?
There’s a reason no one wants to predict the middle of the table.
Villa is the closest thing to consistently above average in open play and deadballs. Arsenal, you could argue, is not terrible far behind.
Brighton has an argument to make about open play style not outweighing deadball luck; The Seagulls are the only plus open play team in the bottom nine spots on the table.
So who deserves to go down?
Sheffield United is dreadful in open play but but also plenty unlucky in what it’s produced in attack, while West Brom is really, inarguably bad in every way.
Burnley and Southampton are also bad in open play but have been bailed out either a little (Burnley) or a lot (Southampton) in the damage they both do and avoid off set pieces.
Newcastle and Fulham have both been a little unlucky in open play, an argument for better finishers to be sure, but another note on the Cottagers’ struggles suggests that their failure to score penalties is why they are below the line and Newcastle above it.